Article by Charley Weber
The production minivan headed out from 17th Street and Fifth Avenue towards Montauk for a day to interview a famous magazine photographer. I had never heard of Peter Beard before. The crew said they were pretty sure I’d like him.
We would be doing an interview piece on the mysterious photographer, while he in turn shot the cover for a video fashion magazine the production company was producing, called Moda Video.
We had one more stop to make in NYC before we took the East Side Highway (FDR Drive) out of Manhattan, along Sunrise Highway, to Montauk at the tip of Long Island, to Peter’s house.
The fashion video was the brainchild of a Turkish businessman who owned the production and post house we all worked for. I had produced a couple of commercials for them but had increasingly fallen into the role of editor/producer. The creatives on the team had been up in arms because of the absence of any serious artistic content or direction on the project.
Expecting another unremarkable but full production day with a stressed production company head trying to fill his new shoes as a director we picked up our charge, the cover model. Things were looking up. She was no catalogue renta-model and undeniably one of the most beautiful girls any of us had ever seen. This made half the crew blush and the conversation in the production van descend into a nervous hush. But there was another twist, the model was about six months pregnant – whether that accounted for her extra glow that day I don’t know but I suspect so. Either way the mostly male camera and lighting crew seemed awkward in her presence, not sure as to how to feel. She was so attractive you wanted to get close to her, but she was also with child which produced another feeling entirely, maybe a paternal one. By then we probably should have known we weren’t in for a normal day, which wouldn’t be a bad thing with the way things had been going on the project.
When we arrived at Peter’s house he was in his study, looking chiseled and tanned dressed in his African Kikoi waist wrap and no top, pretty much exactly as you see him in so many photos. The sun was streaming through the windows, casting light and shadows across him as he painted small illustrations and notes in his famous notebooks. It felt a bit like we were interrupting something private as we filed in and saw this curious classical looking figure cross-legged on the wooden floor, already free-associating and answering questions, while we went to look over his shoulder and marvelled at his notebooks, the intricacy, care and detail he took in producing the notes and illustrations around his photographic images.
The camera men set up more or less without prompting and began rolling straight away, one shooting a wide/master and the other covering close ups and details of Peter. Peter seemed to be in a world of his own, another reality, far far from the one we had come from – the hustle and bustle of NYC – but was gracious as he spoke about that world, maybe somewhere on the Savannah.
As he flipped through his notebooks we saw the fascinating pictures of his place in Africa. Hog Ranch – situated next door to the writer of ‘Out of Africa’ (Karen Blixen) – where he produced his first hugely popular book, ‘End of the Game’ (https://www.abebooks.com/first-edition/END-GAME-~Rare-First-UK-Edition/844142111/bd), as a warning about the incursions that the modern world was making into the wild of Kenya and the tragic effects on its wildlife.
There were also shots of a striking ebony skinned beauty, Iman, who we presumed to be his muse, lover or wife and whom he claimed he had discovered and brought to America as an uneducated village girl who tended goats, although that is a claim she laughs at as one of his fantasies, as she already spoke five languages by the time they met.
Peter had a reputation for running up bills and paying for them with signed photographs which are said to line the walls of restaurants and bars from Montauk to downtown NYC. The last of the adventurers, legendary not only for his wildlife shots in Africa and getting a gig shooting for Vogue while still at Yale, but also for a wild social life with the New York in-crowd, like Truman Capote and Jagger. Sort of an American Michael Cooper, but unlike his English counterpart Peter seemingly was a bit of a jock when at Yale: a Renaissance man of the same calibre and class as Sam Shepherd.
After the ‘interview’, which it seemed to me Peter directed, we went out on his property to a cliff overlooking the sea to film him as he directed and shot the cover stills with the radiant and pregnant cover model. Peter was snapping away shooting happily while encouraging her to lean further and further out over the edge of the cliff! The crew squirmed in their trainers, looking nervously at each other, feeling rather protective towards the model and wondering whether they should be calling 911 or step in to rescue her from imminent peril.
The Peter Beard show, full of its many little surprises, wasn’t over yet. After the day’s shoot we headed down to a Montauk harbour restaurant he frequented for drinks and a bite, and once seated we learned that the young man who was staying with Peter was from Turkey, like our director and his company. It turned out the young Turk and our company director had crossed paths in nightclubs in Turkey, back in the day. That the young man was gay only made the whole thing all the more interesting for everyone in the crew who whispered about this revelation and the colourful possibilities of a life our director may have led in his younger days in Turkey.
I suspect what Peter may have been trying to demonstrate was the need to create moments and to take risks in order to create those moments, because they are what really add meaning to the visual arts. Such moments take us away from ourselves to some place just over the horizon and after those little out of body experiences we come back to earth to the place we were, hopefully wondering a little more about the world around us.
As the sun was setting we bade our farewells, set off back through the Hamptons to NYC and first dropped the beautiful model off outside her brownstone, each one of us probably wishing we had taken a risk. After all that is how moments and lives are made: from how far you dare to lean out over the edge, from the risks you are willing to take.
By hook or by crook our business director ended up as a successful film director of commercials and then feature films, after he returned to Turkey. Some of which were surprisingly good (http://tonymacklin.net/content.php?cID=250). Which just goes to show: you don’t have to be born a prodigious talent, go to Yale and get hired by Vogue before you even graduate to get to where you want. With a certain amount of determination and tenacity you can succeed at anything.
Peter was certainly a breath of fresh air in New York with all its hustle and bustle. It is rare to come across an artist quite so true in anyone’s life.
Whether or not Peter Beard’s creative bent had an effect on our company director I don’t know – he had his support team of creatives to guide him into feeling the form of that role. Peter created magic using his own tools: a fascination for the world around him and a certain oversized and romantic heart which he used as the lens through which he viewed that world, its chaos and charm. Certainly he was not afraid of taking a few risks and leaning over the edge in order to create something worthwhile. The young Turkish boy from our company director’s past also seemed fascinating to me and too curious to have been there by pure chance.
Petra Schmidt, Editor